Roberto Gomez Bolaños, the iconic Mexican actor and screenwriter whose unforgettable comedic characters — a day-dreaming waterboy, a scaredy-cat superhero and a boy who lived in a barrel — were staples of Latin American television, died Friday at his home in Cancun. He was 85.
Over a career that spanned more than six decades, Gomez Bolaños, better known by his nickname "Chespirito," worked as a screenwriter, playwright, composer, actor and director. He catapulted to international fame in the early 1970s with a pair of slapstick, low-budget television comedy shows that were as beloved by children as they were by adults.
"El Chapulin Colorado" ("The Crimson Cricket") was a live-action comedy about a supremely skittish superhero in a bright red outfit who battled bad guys with a bicycle horn and a mallet (and which would inspire Matt Groening's character Bumblebee Man on "The Simpsons"). And there was the seminal "El Chavo del Ocho" ("The Kid at Number Eight"), a show that chronicled the misadventures of an orphaned boy who inhabited an old wooden barrel in an urban neighborhood in Mexico.
FOR THE RECORD:
Roberto Gomez Bolanos: The obituary of Mexican actor Roberto Gomez Bolanos in the Nov. 29 California section translated the title of his TV comedy show "El Chapulin Colorado" as "The Crimson Cricket." A chapulin is a grasshopper. —
Shortly after Gomez's death was announced by the Televisa television network Friday, it quickly became the No. 1 global trending topic on Twitter, according to Chartbeat (ahead of the new "Star Wars" trailer and Black Friday deals). The outpouring included condolences from well-known Latin American rock bands, actors and musicians — as well as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who tweeted: "Mexico has lost an icon whose work has transcended generations and borders."
The cause of death was not immediately known, but in recent years Gomez had been known to suffer from respiratory ailments. He is survived by six children from his first marriage to Graciela Fernandez, as well as 12 grandchildren and his wife of 10 years, Florinda Meza, the actress who played the uppity Doña Florida on "El Chavo del Ocho."
Roberto Gomez Bolaños was born in Mexico City on Feb. 21, 1929, to Elsa Bolaños Cacho, a bilingual secretary, and Francisco Gomez Linares, a painter and illustrator. He was the second of three children in a middle-class family. As a young man, he was obsessed with soccer and boxing — he even made it to a high-profile Mexican boxing tournament as an adolescent but didn't advance out of the first few rounds. His small stature, for which he would become known as an entertainer, made the dream of athletics short-lived.
He studied engineering at the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico but never practiced the trade. Instead, he landed a job at an advertising agency at 22, where he learned the art of scriptwriting.
By the 1950s, he was writing scripts for all manner of Mexican television shows, primarily comedic. This included a stint as a writer for "Viruta and Capulina," a two-man comedy act that appeared on television, radio and film. In 1959, he appeared in one of the pair's films, "Dos Criados Malcriados" ("Two Troublemakers"), one of his first acting gigs.
During this period, he married Graciela Fernandez, with whom he had six children: Roberto, Graciela, Marcela, Paulina, Teresa and Cecilia.
It was around this time that he earned his nickname, "Chespirito," by which he would be best known. A screenplay that he produced so pleased the director he was working with that the director began calling him "Skakespearito" — "little Shakespeare" — later amended to accommodate the Spanish pronunciation.
After writing for some of Mexico's biggest shows, including "Comicos y Canciones" ("Comics and Songs") and "El Estudio de Pedro Vargas" ("Pedro Vargas Studio") in the 1960s, Gomez finally got his turn as a regular on Mexican television on the program "Los Supergenios de la Mesa Cuadrada" ("The Super Geniuses of the Square Table"). The show was a humorous roundtable and sketch-comedy program in which four characters responded to reader mail in funny and absurd ways. It was within this program that the characters of El Chapulin and El Chavo were born.
The big break came in 1970, when "El Chapulin Colorado" had its debut as a stand-alone program. This was quickly followed by the launch, in 1971, of "El Chavo del Ocho." Within two years, both shows were being broadcast all over the continent and where they continue to be broadcast to this day (including in the U.S., where they air on Spanish-language channels such as UniMas.)
El Chavo was particularly resonant in Latin America as a truth-bearing simpleton who dreamed of eating tasty sandwiches and whose interactions with the neighborhood kids — the know-it-all Chilindra and the spoiled mama's boy Quico — illuminated poignant moments of struggle, economic class and hypocrisy. Gomez's programs were known for featuring humble characters, often of working-class means.
"There are writers that put forth words and concepts that sound very important," Gomez told the Mexican daily La Jornada in 2005. "But in the end, they have nothing. I always tried to be as concise as possible, so that not only would it reach everyone, but especially the modest people, who needed to be reached more than anyone else."
Gomez would go on to produce myriad other works after "El Chapulin" and "El Chavo" went off the air (in 1979 and 1980 respectively). He wrote and starred in the 1979 film "El Chanfle," in which he played a day-dreaming water-boy for a prominent soccer team. He also staged live shows that filled arenas through Latin America. And in 1992, he created the stage play "11 y 12," one of the longest-running works of theater ever presented in Mexico. It played for more than 3,200 shows.
In the 1980s, he divorced Fernandez, his wife of more than 20 years. And in 2004, he married Meza, a co-star in many of his productions. The couple did not have any children.
Also to Gomez's credit are countless other television programs, several books (including an autobiography published in 2000) and an animated series. But he will always be best loved for Chavo.
Reflecting on why his character had such staying power, Gomez once told a Spanish television reporter: "El Chavo, lacking almost everything, was an optimist. He felt joy, he skipped, he would get excited, he had the joy of life."